Professor Stories: Leyla Rouhi

Leyla Rouhi. Credit: Williams College
Leyla Rouhi.
Credit: Williams College

2010 Massachusetts state winner Leyla Rouhi was a talkative child, but she stresses that the most important element of her teaching is genuine listening. "In literature classes, the most successful hour for me is one where lots of hands are up," she wrote in her personal statement.

Leyla, a native of Iran, received her education at Oxford and Harvard universities and can speak five languages—although, as a former student recalls, she always points out that she can't change the oil in her car.

"Leyla is extraordinarily well-grounded not only in Spanish medieval literature [but] also in the broad history of ideas that encompasses a geographic swath from the Middle East through Europe and into the Americas," wrote one of her colleagues at Williams College. "Though I am ten years senior to Leyla in both age and teaching experience, I continue to learn from her, within the classroom and beyond. She is inspiring in so many ways, to both students and colleagues."

"I learned more from a single hour-long lecture about Don Quixote by Leyla Rouhi than I learned in college from an entire semester's class on the book," a former student heard an economics professor at Williams say. The student, who went on to study Iberian and Latin American cultures at Stanford University, recalled how Leyla made 500-year-old texts come alive. "She was a demanding yet generous guide...[insisting] on careful, rigorous thinking and sophisticated writing at all times. She also made [a thesis critiquing Cervantine studies] accessible to a student who never before imagined writing a 20-page paper in Spanish, let alone five times that."

"Being a member of Professor Rouhi's classroom permanantly changed my understanding of literature, the world and myself," wrote another former student. "She presented literature to the class for dynamic analysis—never as if she had a predetermined conclusion in mind."

"I am aware that some people might think that in a literature class anything goes, and that all interpretations are considered valid by the professor who nods and says 'good point' to even the most loopy idea," Leyla wrote. "That is not true for me at all. Literary interpretation is every bit as open to misunderstanding or uninformed readings as scientific inquiry ... I continue to be humbled by the students' ability to rise to the challenge and to offer new insights into the materials I have been teaching for years."

Know a great professor's story? Nominate him or her for a U.S. Professors of the Year award.